“It’s important for us to be financially responsible going forward, and we’re fully committed to doing so. Beginning next season, we’ll operate within our means and we will prioritise maintaining a solid financial standing. Our strategies for the upcoming transfer window and beyond will take this into account and we’re determined to build a sustainable future for the Club in line with a modern data-backed approach.”
The past couple of weeks have been particularly unsettling for Wigan Athletic fans. For the fourth time this season players and staff were not paid on time, resulting in disciplinary action from the EFL. The three-point deduction imposed will almost certainly see the club relegated back into League 1. Moreover, there could be further punishment to come because the club’s owner failed to deposit an amount equal to 125% of the forecast monthly wage bills in a designated Club account as previously instructed by the EFL. Should there be a further points deduction it is likely to be imposed for the upcoming season.
Fans have been bewildered by these events and unsure of the direction in which the club is heading in the short term. Many took to the social media and message boards. Most sought an explanation from club management why this could have happened, seeking reassurance for the future. Sadly others were condemning in their tone, some sending totally unacceptable tweets to the chairman, Talal Al Hammad. They had perhaps overlooked that the owner had previously settled club debt to the value of at £14m through the purchase of shares, leaving the club debt free at the time.
We had been therefore been waiting for Talal Al Hammad to give us a statement of the direction in which he intends to take the club. Al Hammad had tweeted that the first priority was to make sure the players were paid for the recent missed pay date. After that he would provide further information. His statement came on Friday, when the player payments had been processed.
Although we still do not know why the payments were not made on time – perhaps the true reasons will never be revealed – Al Hammad stated that “This issue has now been resolved and I can assure you that the late payment of wages will not happen again. It simply cannot happen again.” He also recognised the need to rebuild trust with players, staff and fans.
On March 8 the club announced a loss of £7.7m for the 2020-21 season, with staff costs of £13.4m and turnover of £8.3m. The announcement included a statement that “Phoenix 2021 Limited will continue to fund the future commitments as equity rather than debt”. A similar loss was made in Dave Whelan’s last season as chairman, 2017-18, with a similar staffing cost. Both Leam Richardson and Gary Caldwell were successful in winning League 1, buoyed by the club paying wages well above the norm for the division.
A financial loss for a season was commonplace in Dave Whelan’s time as Latics owner. Despite the lucrative TV money coming in during the eight years they were in the Premier League the club only made a profit once. Whelan was the local benefactor who wrote off debt and enabled the club to live beyond its means.
When Whelan sold to IEC in November 2018 the club was already on the way making a significant loss for the season, as it sought to consolidate in the Championship. The £9.2m loss for the 2018-19 was largely down to a salary bill of £19.4 to achieve an 18th place position in the league table. Despite the loss IEC continued to loan funds to the club, with somewhere close to £10m spent on signing Jamal Lowe, Kieffer Moore, Antonee Robinson and Joe Williams in the summer of 2019. We will probably ever know the ins and outs of the takeover by Next Leader Fund in June 2020 and why the club was put into administration, but a loan of over £24m from IEC to the club was written off in the process.
Faced with a significant financial loss in their first full season of ownership Phoenix 2021 trod cautiously in the transfer market in the summer of 2022. Ryan Nyambe was acquired as a free agent and Anthony Scully was signed from Lincoln City for an undisclosed fee. With so many players recruited on long term contracts the previous summer the squad was largely going to be that of the previous season. With the momentum of winning League 1 behind them, they started fairly well. However, the physical long-ball approach that had enabled them to do well in the third tier was not going to be successful against the more sophisticated opposition in the Championship. The alarm bells were already ringing when Leam Richardson was given a new three-year contract, only for him to be sacked weeks later, after winning only one of the last ten home games.
The appointment of Kolo Toure was at best ambitious, at worst naive. The team’s performances in Toure’s first two games – a draw at Charlton and a narrow home defeat by high-flying Sheffield United – showed some promise as the manager encouraged his players to be “brave on the ball”, veering away from the long ball strategy. However, major defensive lapses saw results take a major turn for the worse and the manager was sacked after 59 days with no wins in 9 games.
Shaun Maloney was appointed in late January. His record up to this point is W1D6L3. Maloney has impressed fans with his eloquence, openness and realistic approach. He has talked of improvement in both boxes and he has tightened up a defence that had leaked so many goals before his arrival. However, the attacking aspect is in need of considerable improvement. Al Hammad commented in his statement that:
“Shaun and his staff have worked relentlessly since he was appointed and we have all seen in the last few weeks the improvement in both the team and individuals. The connection between the manager, players and fans is back and this progress is the first step in our long-term journey together. He has my and the Board’s full support.”
Mistakes have certainly been made that have proved very costly. Richardson and Toure and their associated staff will need to be paid off and the club now faces a return to League 1. Al Hammad has stated his view that the club needs to be financially responsible, operating within its means. This is a different approach to that of the Whelan/Sharpe/IEC eras.
The financial balance sheet for this season will show another considerable loss, but can Al Hammad get close to balancing the books next season? What steps will he have to take to do so?
The first step is to reduce costs by shedding players on relatively large salaries. There are 10 players whose contracts expire in June, along with 5 on loan from other clubs. That leaves 14 who remain under contract. They are:
Defenders: Charlie Hughes, Jason Kerr, Tom Pearce, Jack Whatmough
Central Midfield: Tom Naylor, Graeme Shinnie
Wingers/creative: Thelo Aasgaard, Jordan Jones, Callum Lang, Jamie McGrath, Anthony Scully
Centre forwards: Stephen Humphrys, Josh Magennis, Charlie Wyke
The board will set a budget for the coming season and Maloney will need to work within it. Some of the players whose contracts run out in June may yet be offered extensions, although on reduced terms. The highest earners of those still under contract may be urged to move on or sent on loan to reduce costs.
Talal Al Hammad’s statement has been welcomed by so many fans who were seeking clarity as to the stability and direction of the club. However, there are those who have come to expect the club to have a benevolent owner in the mould of Dave Whelan, enabling to punch above its financial weight. There are others who are angry at the board for the late payments of players, incurring a points penalty making the chances of avoiding relegation become smaller still.
Al Hammad will be visiting Wigan in the coming week in an attempt to rebuild trust with stakeholders and the wider community. It is an unenviable task that he has ahead of him.
With a period of austerity coming up at the club there will be fans who will not accept the situation and attendances will drop. However, most fans will accept that if the club continues to be run like it has in the past there is always a risk of amassing great debt and subsequent liquidation.